New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: new music

Sad and Anxious Choral Music for a Sad and Anxious Time

David Lang wrote his chorale Love Fail in 2012, long before the lockdown was anything other than a handful of World Economic Forum memos and hysterical flu-apocalypse memes bouncing around the web. But it’s an apt piece of music for this time in history. Loosely based on the story of Tristan and Isolde, Lang interpolates texts from sources as diverse as Lydia Davis, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, Béroul and Thomas of Britain into the narrative. All-female choir Quince Ensemble  sing this rather subtle theme and variations very matter-of-factly, in the style of a Renaissance motet, adding spare percussion in places. Their world premiere recording is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening segment, He Was and She Was is easily identiable as Lang: short syllables, subtle and almost imperceptible variations and harmonies that in this case draw on both early music and this era’s minimalism.The ensemble follow with Durreth, an allusive, stoic but melancholy miniature

A Different Man has glockenspiel and a distinctly Spanish tinge to the melody  By contrast, The Wood and the Wire is much more upbeat and soaring, and evocative of British counterpoint from the 17th century and before.

Right and Wrong is a web of simple deconstructed chromatic riffs. You Will Love Me has tantalizingly evanescent close harmonies, while Forbidden Subjects provides welcome feminist context and reminds how agillely Lang works space into his music.

The next variation, As Love Grows begins even more spacious but grows much more warily anthemic. Members of the group rise to the top of their voices in I Live in Pain – no wasted words there, huh? – over a rhythmic rondo of sorts.

The music grows much more sparse all of a sudden in Head, Heart and picks up only a little If I Have to Drown, a gruesome dilemma that Lang doesn’t foreshadow in the least until it arrives. There’s subtle irony in the otherworldly tones of the conclusion as well. Lang has been incredibly prolific lately and this is one of his more memorable work from the past decade.

Anna Heflin Blends Clever, Hilarious Spoken Word With Enigmatic New Music For Strings

Violist Anna Heflin calls her debut album The Redundancy of the Angelic “an interluding play.” Blending surrealistic, sometimes cut-and-pasted spoken word in between austere string themes, the record – which isn’t online yet – is alternately very serious and ridiculously amusing. Heflin is an acute observer and an imaginative composer; the push-pull of the album’s central dynamic ramps up the surreal factor. The album’s unifying and very best joke doesn’t reveal itself until the end, and it’s way too good to give away.

Tensely enunciating, Heflin opens the album with a disjointed poetic tableau, a beauty parlor recast as the center of a strangely benign universe. Then the music begins. A slowly sirening riff gives way to a close-harmonied string trio – Heflin with violinists Shannon Reilly and Emily Holden. Their alternately puckish, rhythmic and soberly spacious phrases and variations descend to a a hazy, hypnotic interlude, which they end up bringing full circle.

The second spoken word piece, Fell This Blonde, is devastatingly funny: let’s say it turns an ugly American beauty myth upside down. The strings return in As Above, So Below, first with an austere, stairstepping theme, then sandpapery harmonics and a hair-raising coda.

Heflin allusively ponders apocalyptic portents and escape therefrom in We Made It Out: ultimately, she’s optimistic. In Heflin’s closing pastiche poem, the joke is on the listener as she ties up all the loose ends, Hitchcock style: again, no spoilers.

A Mesmerizing, Paradigm-Shifting, Intimate New Album From Hafez Modirzadeh

Hafez Modirzadeh’s 2012 album Post-Chromodal Out! isn’t just one of the greatest jazz albums ever made: it’s one of the most paradigm-shifting albums ever made in any style of music. After decades of blending classical Persian modes with jazz, the tenor saxophonist employed several microtonal piano tunings for a session packed with riveting, otherworldly sounds. It’s probably the best album Vijay Iyer ever played on. It’s the dream record Erik Satie never wrote, that Thelonious Monk and Abdolhasan Saba never got to make. It also sounds like absolutely nothing else ever recorded…except for this.

With his latest release, Facets – streaming at Bandcamp – Modirzadeh switches out the pyrotechnics for a mesmerizing, intimate series of duets and solo pieces. He chose three completely different pianists as partners: Craig Taborn, Kris Davis and Tyshawn Sorey. The first comes out of the Knitting Factory school of the late 80s, the second is known for her lyricism but also has recently branched out into both more electronic and avant garde sounds. In the jazz world, Sorey has built a strong career as a drummer, but in the last few years he’s turned to solid, purposeful new classical composition.

Here, Modirzadeh employs a piano tuning where eight of the keys in the scale are retuned microtonally. Most of these pieces are on the short side; several of them are miniatures. While he gave each pianist a score prior prior to the recording sessions, none of them had played the music in this tuning before. The overtones are to die for: there’s as much sound in between the notes as there is when the hammers hit the strings. Davis is the most expansive pianist here, relishing the opportunity to discover new harmonic universes. True to form, Sorey is all about atmosphere and focus. Taborn, who opens and closes the album solo, is clearly learning on the job and takes his time, ceding centerstage to the ringleader here for some of his most invocative passages.

The first pianist Modirzadeh engages with is Sorey, for a blend of gentle, soulful, rhythmic sax over a solemn, lingering minimalism with just a few hints of microtonality. It fits his style perfectly.

The first duet with Davis, on the same composition, comes across as a more picturesque dawn tableau, Modirzadeh wafting and in one place sounding what could be a muezzin’s call as the pianist calmly but playfully works rising righthand against a still, low resonant figure. Their miniature after that is more concise and over too soon, although that could be said for everything on the album: who would ever want such rapturous music to end? Time stands still when you hear this.

Her methodical gestures, thoughtful syncopation and symphonically vast dynamic shifts on the album’s ninth track, a solo piece, are as otherworldly as they are fun: good luck trying not to crack a smile when she hits that ridiculous dance theme. And she finds regal solemnity but also moments of puckish mirth in a solo piece later on.

She also gets to take Monk through a funhouse mirror, with a coy restraint, in Modirzadeh’s minimalist microtonal mashup of Pannonica and Ask Me Now. The saxophonist does each as a duet with Taborn, the former a cautious hint of a stroll, the latter with spare yet inviting and increasingly surreal wee-hours ambience

With Sorey, Modirzadeh develops a warm, increasingly hypnotic nocturne; playfully expands and contracts around a clustering, jumping riff; and ushers in the album’s most mystical nocturne. The contrast between low crush and high belltones in Sorey’s first solo improvisation is spine-tingling. Later, he parses a Satie-esque fugue.

To compare this album to anything else released this year is unfair: jazz is more microtonal than most people realize, but Modirzadeh is still galaxies ahead of anybody else. That being said, it would take Ellington and Mohammed Abdel Wahab coming back from the dead to knock this one off the top of the best jazz albums of 2021 list.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein Debuts Richard Danielpour’s Haunting, Guardedly Hopeful, Historic Lockdown-Themed New Suite

Imagine your doctor telling you that because you have asthma, odds are seventy percent that you won’t survive the seasonal flu.

That’s what composer Richard Danielpour‘s doctor told him in the early days of the lockdown. The good news is that Danielpour, along with hundreds of millions of other asthmatics, emerged alive. But during those grim months a year ago when so many citizens around the world had no idea if they’d ever be able to leave their homes without being shot, Danielpour was understandably distraught. He was able to find solace in Simone Dinnerstein‘s recordings of J.S. Bach – and, inspired by those albums, wrote a suite of his own for her

The result, American Mosaic, is streaming at Spotify. It’s a visceral, intensely focused attempt to transcend the psychological torture pretty much everyone endured before the science debunking the lockdowners’ terror propaganda came to light. Not only is this riveting and often haunting music, it’s important history.

A spare miniature, the first of four “consolations,” opens the suite: Dinnerstein plays it with guarded hope, but horror erupts at the end. She gives the brief second and longer third variations a muted woundedness, a clock-chime theme moving along steadily, yet with all sense of time being lost. The final one has somewhat more robust harmonies but also more of a funereal atmosphere, Dinnerstein leaving plenty of breathing room for both the somber lefthand and the slow parade overhead to linger, quietly but eventfully.

Part of the lockdowner agenda, of course, involved arbitrarily deciding who was “essential,” and who was not, a practice taken from the Nazi death camps where able-bodied workers were sometimes initially spared, and women, children and the elderly were sent to the gas chamber.

Danielpour dedicates several of the suite’s segments to groups of hardworking individuals, both essential and worthless by lockdowner standards, who kept the world going, Caretakers and research physicians get a chiming, purposeful intertwining theme. Parents and their kids bound around in a momentary distraction, as do documentary filmmakers, photographers, teachers and students: at least someone’s having fun here! Rabbis and ministers receive a resonant but enigmatically expectant, Debussy-esque salute.

Dinnerstein gets to revel in some precise but difficult boogie-woogie in a shout-out to writers, journalists and poets: thanks, guys! The closest thing to a love theme here is dedicated to doctors and interns, yet trouble lurks just outside. Prophets and martyrs are acknowledged soberly, in the suite’s most spacious, Satie-esque moment.

The visible enemy is portrayed as very calm and determined in the beginning, but this illuminati of clowns can’t get their story straight. To Danielpour, at the time, the invisible one was just as steady but more phantasmagorical: it’s the suite’s most chilling interlude. An Elegy For Our Time comes across as more of a wistful reminiscence of better days.

Dinnerstein winds up the record with three Danielpour transcriptions of Bach works: a gentle, cautiously prayerful take of the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B minor, a famous Aria theme from the St. Matthew Passion reinvented as a delicate dirge, and a more heroic yet carefully paced epilogue from that same suite. After all we’ve been through in the past year, the hope Danielpour alludes to here seems within our reach.

Get Lost in Southeast of Rain’s Magical Soundscapes

Back in the spring of 2017, singer Lemon Guo opened an outdoor festival along the Hudson River sponsored by Columbia University. Her calmly hypnotic yet gently playful electroacoustic set, a blend of ambient music with traditional Asian tinges, could have gone on twice as long as it did and the crowd stretched across the lawn would have been happy to hear it. Fast forward to 2021: Guo has a new album, 42 Days, by her  duo project Southeast of Rain, an online collaboration with pipa player Sophia Shen streaming at Bandcamp. Recorded remotely over the web during the lockdown, it’s similarly intimate, intriguing, inviting music.

Shen plays solo in Constellations, the first number, making her way from delicate tremolo-picking, through spare bends, enigmatic thickets and echoey harmonics, pushing the limits of traditional pentatonic Chinese modes. That was day four of the two musicians’ collaboration. Day eight, Between Fleeting Somethings has a coastal California rainstorm, fleeting vocal peaks, slow doppler-like ambience and gentle rattles from Shen’s pipa.

The eleventh day of the two musicians’ collaboration was a productive one, a trance-inducing Shen soundscape peppering immersive ambience with sudden metallic flickers. Day eighteen is titled To Frank the Owl. a steady, catchy, balletesque theme: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Sofia Rei catalog.

Guo’s plaintive, hauntingly microtonal chorale, Luminescence, descends from Bulgarian-inflected leaps and bounds to more stark, spaciously drifting figures. Day 25, Traveler, has Guo’s Balkan melismas far back in the mix behind an enigmatic calm.

If Improvising at the Gym reflects actual events, it’s a beautiful, stark and slowly unwinding example of what a couple of composers can do when the endorphins kick in, Guo’s warmly mapled clarity over Shen’s elegant tremolo-picking. The two wind up the album with Unwanted Bits, Shen’s wounded, exploratory plucking over a surreal pastiche of found sounds. If this is what Guo and Shen can do without the the chemistry of actually playing together in person, imagine what magic they’ll be able to conjure once we’re all free of the lockdown.

Joy and Desolation From the Tesla Quartet

The Tesla Quartet have been around for more than a decade. In keeping with this century’s zeitgeist, artists release albums when they’re ready, not when some accountant says they have to in order to fulfill some sleazy record label contract. So their debut album, Joy and Desolation – streaming at their music page – was worth the wait. It’s a mix of very familiar repertoire and more adventurous material.

They open the record with a classical radio staple: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, with soloist Alexander Fiterstein. Let’s not kid ourselves: pensive third movement notwithstanding, this is wine-hour music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of suburban Vienna, such as suburbs existed in 1789. The more you drink, the easier it is to get lost in its lustre and exchanges of subdued revelry. But it’s gorgeously executed. Fiterstein maintains a stunning, wind-tunnel clarity, throughout both extended passages and bubbly staccato phrases. Violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, and violist Edwin Kaplan provide echoes and a strong backdrop, and cellist Serafim Smigelskiy switches seamlessly between resonant ballast and serving as bass player.

Next on the bill are Gerald Finzi’s innocuously neo-baroque Five Bagatelles. A drifting legato quickly transforms to leaps and bounds in the opening Prelude. Fiterstein’s moody vistas echo in Smigelskiy’s undercurrent in the nocturnal Romance, followed by a nostalgically snowy, waltzing carol of a third movement. The fourth relies more on stark pastoral textures from the strings; the concluding fughetta, on bubbly exchanges. Aaron Copland comes to mind often here: this music is facile, derivative – and seamlessly played.

So much for joy. There’s a slow, fugal contrast between icy, troubled, tectonically shifting close-harmonied strings, built around a creepy chromatic riff and the clarinet’s looming textures, in John Corigliano‘s Soliloquy. The windswept, ghostly outro is absolutely gorgeous. The group wind up the album with Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, its haunted flickers and flutters behind plaintive clarinet up to a fire dance within the first couple of minutes. Demands on the ensemble increase from sudden shocked cadenzas to chilling mictrotonal interludes: what a piece de resistance to choose as a coda.

A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

Haunting, Potently Relevant New Protest Music From the Imani Winds

In French, “bruit” means “noise.” In English, it’s the medical term for a heart murmur caused by a vascular blockage, and pronounced as “brute.” The Imani Winds‘ new album Bruits – streaming at Bandcamp – references both meanings, in terms of access to justice for people of color as well as stirring up a mighty noise about it. New classical music doesn’t get any more relevant than this in 2021.

The group – flutist Brandon Patrick George, oboe player Toyin Spellman-Diaz, clarinetist Mark Dover, horn player Jeff Scott and bassoonist Monica Ellis – open with the title track, a five-part Vijay Iyer suite inspired by the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cory Smythe circles ominously on microtonal electric piano as individual wind voices pulse and swirl, darkly tropical Miami bustle giving way to still nocturnal foreshadowing. The second movement has a recitation of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law – under which Martin’s murderer was acquitted – set to terse, grim piano syncopation.

Low, lingering suspense contrasts with uneasily wafting tones in the third movement; a tense, relentless rhythm returns in the fourth, only to recede to a haze and a grim quote from Georgia congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was murdered less than a year after Martin. Somber and agitated themes conjoin in the conclusion, rising to a cold, fateful stop.

Spellman-Diaz and Ellis exchange Indian-tinged melismas as Reena Esmail’s The Light Is the Same gets underway, its mashup of contrasting raga themes rising to a delicate intertwine. John Whittington Franklin reads the words of his historian dad, John Hope Franklin in Frederic Rzewski’s triptych Sometimes. The first movement has Ellis playing somber variations on Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child behind a characteristically commonsensical observation: “We need a new American Revolution that will create a new ideology of comradeship in the great enterprise of building a society in which every man and woman can face tomorrow, unencumbered by the burdens of the past or the prejudices of the present. This calls for a revolution in the heart and soul of every American. This is what the first American Revolution did not have. This is what the new American Revolution must have.”

The harmonies grow more brooding over a stately pace, then the voices diverge in steady counterpoint before circling back in the second movement. Soprano Janai Brugger sings a Langston Hughes text in the bitterly circling conclusion. Rzewski has never shied away from tackling important political issues, from the Attica massacre onward, and this is one of his most memorable and unselfconsciously vivid works.

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

Dynamic, Tuneful, Playful Outside-the-Box Solo Bass From Daniel Barbiero

Those of us who play low-register instruments tend to think of them as complementary, which in most styles of music they almost always are.

But inevitability theories of anything, whether history or music, are not healthy, and they don’t hold water. Maybe it’s high time we got past them.

With its sheer catchiness, playful sense of humor and dynamic range, bassist Daniel Barbiero‘s solo album of graphic scores, In/Completion – streaming at Bandcamp – will get you thinking outside the box, whether you’re a player or a listener. “At their best, graphic compositions are both beautiful and provocative. Beautiful in that they can, when artfully done, stand as independent works of visual art,” Barbiero asserts in his liner notes.

You could say that the album’s opening number, Root Music by Makoto Nomura, was written by nature itself, a vegetable patch that the composer planted in shallow soil whose roots turned out to be visible. Barbiero chose to interpret it as a series of catchy, hypnotically circling phrases in the high midrange.

Traces, by Silvia Corda, offers many choices of riffs and how to arrange them: Barbiero uses a generous amount of space for his emphatic, vigorously minimal plucks and washes. His solo arrangement of Alexis Porfiriadis‘ string quartet piece Spotting Nowhere makes a good segue and is considerably more spacious and often sepulchral, with its muted flurries and spiky pizzicato.

Barbiero recorded Paths (An Autumn Day in a Seaside Town), by his four-string compadre Cristiano Bocci on their recent duo album. The terse theme and variations of this solo version are more starkly sustained and expansive, yet whispery and sparkling with high harmonics in places, minus the found sounds from the shoreline which appear on the duo recording.

Barbiero employs a lot of extended technique on this record, especially in his deviously slithery, harmonically bristling lines in Bruce Friedman’s fleeting OPTIONS No. 3. Wilhelm Matthies’s GC 1 (2-9-17), a partita, is rather somberly bowed, yet Barbiero also incorporates some subtly wry conversational phrasing.

5 Paths 4 Directions, by Patrick Brennan comes across as contrasts between purposefulness and anxiety. Barbiero winds up the record with a stark, allusively chromatic interpretation of Morton Feldman’s Projection 1, originally devised for solo cello.